a monthly column
by A.C.E. Bauer
A love story
Every four or five years, I pick up Dorothy L. Sayers’
Each time, I face a moment of trepidation. What if the book disappoints me?
Maybe, finally, Lord Peter Wimsey will be tiresome, or Sayers’ class-centered
view of England between the wars, boring, or the mystery will be slight, the
characters simple, the world of her fictional Oxford college for women just too
Never fear. John Donne and Sir Philip Sidney entice me at the outset, and a
21-line block of text—the first paragraph—convinces me that I don’t want to
leave. This is a novel about Harriet Vane, an intelligent, self-reliant woman,
with honest conflicting emotions and a dose of common sense, who has a burning
desire to spend time in the academic world.
We are led into her life through the Shrewsbury College Gaudy—a reunion and
dinner for alumnae. But someone at this Oxford college is sending poison-pen
letters to students and dons, playing cruel pranks and causing vandalism. The
Dean, getting desperate, asks Harriet Vane to help ferret out the prankster
while using utmost discretion. The women of the Senior Common Room—the tutors,
fellows, Dean, Bursar—are prime suspects and they soon find themselves under Ms.
Vane’s magnifying glass and each other’s. The disturbances don’t let up.
Suspects multiply. Then a student attempts suicide after being subjected to an
onslaught of vicious accusations. At this point, some three fifths of the way
through the book, the College relents and allows Harriet to call upon an
outsider for help—Lord Peter Wimsey.
Along the way we have explored Oxford, the university and system, its mores and
traditions. We have examined the status of women, the promises of youth, the
changes wrought by time, the roles women are called upon to play or forced into.
And we have, without a doubt, followed a writer’s debate about what makes a good
Harriet Vane, like Dorothy L. Sayers, committed a serious indiscretion as a
young woman—in Harriet’s case it led to the accusation of murder; in Sayers’
case to an illegitimate child. With nothing to her name but opprobrium, Harriet
took her greatest skill—writing—and, like Sayers, put it to the market creating
detective novels, and garnered a great deal of success. Toward the beginning of
Gaudy Night, we find her proofing several of
her older books for new editions.
The re-reading of one’s own works is usually a dismal matter, and when she had
completed her task she felt thoroughly jaded and displeased with herself. The
books were all right, as far as they went; as intellectual exercises, they were
even brilliant. But there was something lacking about them; they read now to her
as though they had been written with a mental reservation, a determination to
keep her own opinions and personality out of view. (p.66)
Harriet begins writing a new novel and brings it with her to Shrewsbury, to work
on while she quietly investigates the harassment being inflicted on the College.
But halfway through her work, she is stuck—she’s written a lovely plot, an
intriguing setting, but . . . the story sounds dead to her. After worrying it
for a while, she tells Peter about it. He suggests that one of her main
characters, Wilfrid, needs beefing up.
“. . . But if I give Wilfrid all those violent and lifelike feelings, he’ll
throw the whole book out of balance.”
“You would have to abandon the jigsaw kind of story and write a book about human
beings for a change.”
“I’m afraid to do that, Peter. It might go too near to the bone.”
“It might be the wisest thing you could do.”
“Write it out and be rid of it?”
“I’ll think about that. It would hurt like hell.”
“What would that matter, if it made a good book?” (pp. 332-333)
Harriet, true to her word rewrites Wilfred’s character. She makes him real and
discovers, to her dismay, that her whole book is now unbalanced.
Wilfrid’s tormented humanity stood out now against the competent vacuity of the
other characters like a wound. Moreover, with the reduction of Wilfrid’s motives
to what was psychologically credible, a large lump of the plot had fallen out,
leaving a gap through which one could catch glimpses of new and exciting jungles
of intrigue. (p. 409)
She is forced to write a good book. And thus in the course of
Gaudy Night, she
has followed Sayers’ path—moving from plot-driven caricatures to
character-driven plots. Sayers had wanted Gaudy Night to be her last detective
novel, and she expressed her intent through Harriet’s struggles, both literary
and personal. Financially secure, Sayers could now, like Harriet, devote herself
to what mattered to her most: academic studies, translations, a world of
intellect and debate. Harriet exposes all of Sayers’ ambitions and fears—what it
meant to be a woman, a writer and an academic at the core, while trying to make
your way in a world that viewed women as beholden to men. To bring this all into
relief, she gave Harriet a foil, Lord Peter Wimsey, the person she is both
literally beholden to and to whom she does not wish to owe anything.
Which brings me to why I love this book most of all. The book is, fundamentally,
from beginning to end, a love story. Harriet has gathered all the clues, but she
is unable to unravel the cause for the disturbances. The simple reason is, of
course, that as an advertised “Lord Peter Wimsey book”, Sayers had to make him
solve the mystery. But she created another plausible reason for the reader: as
Peter puts it, “something got between you and the facts,” and that “thing” is
Harriet’s ambivalence about him.
Lord Peter Wimsey, Sayers’ creation since
is the second son of a Duke, with wealth, intelligence, quick wit and time on
his hands, who takes up detection as a hobby. Slim, blond, grey-eyed and
monocled, he embodies the debonair entre-guerres bachelor portrayed by the likes
of Fred Astaire. Over fifteen years, Sayers imbued him with life, breadth, fears
and even a self-deprecating ambition. In Strong Poison
he saves Harriet Vane from the gallows: she is wrongly accused in the murder of
her live-in lover. Peter falls in love with her and proposes to her. Appalled,
she turns him down, and for the next five years, with a certain regularity,
Peter proposes again and again, only to be met by rebuke. But as Gaudy
Night chronicles, both Harriet and Peter change
as the refusals pile up.
Harriet grows from a dismal self-loathing to someone confident in her intellect
and self-worth, while Peter realizes the selfishness of his proposals and slowly
strips away the artifice in his dealings with Harriet. By the time we see them
together for the first time in Gaudy Night,
their relationship has moved from wariness to a level of trust. Harriet relies
on Peter’s consistency and intelligence, and Peter on her down-to-earth honesty.
Peter’s visit at the beginning of the novel is brief. He disappears from the
scene, although not from Harriet’s mind, until well nigh three fifths of the way
through. And when he reappears, Sayers grants us a most remarkable moment in
detective fiction. She spends almost two chapters, some 25 pages, describing a
respite, a “holiday” they take on Oxford’s rivers. In those crucial 25 pages we
witness a sea-change of emotions, minutely described, breathtaking in their
effect. This holiday is the fulcrum of the novel—the point where all stands
still and where everything is held in balance. It is also one of the most
beautiful pieces of romantic writing I have read in some 35+ years of reading
Peter disappears again, retaking the scene briefly here and there (though now at
more frequent intervals) until we reach the necessary gathering of the suspects
and unraveling of all the clues. But while the mystery marches on to its
climactic conclusion, Sayers never lets go of the reins. She lays bare the
status of women, the writer’s lot, the mores of Oxford. And most important of
all, she tells the love story, all the way through. As readers, we require a
reckoning, and holding nothing back as a writer, Sayers supplies it.
All the books I return to are, at their center, love stories. From Elizabeth
Bennett sparring with Fitzwilliam Darcy, to Kim’s devotion to the lama and the
lama’s to Kim, love is the emotion that rivets me to the book. Engaging the
heart jump-starts the mind. I read more carefully, pleasure infusing the effort
because as the pages turn, I am rewarded emotionally as well as intellectually.
I am also given the truest measure of the author. To evoke that kind of emotion,
in all its complexities, and make it honest, the author must give something of
him or herself—a piece cut to the bone. I am always honored by the trust that is
given to me, as reader, and in the author’s generosity—a generosity found in the
best books and the best stories on my shelves.
All quotations are from
by Dorothy L. Sayers; copyright © 1936 by Dorothy Leigh Sayers Fleming;
copyright renewed © 1964 by Anthony Fleming; HarperPaperbacks edition, 1995.
A.C.E. Bauer has been telling and writing stories since
childhood. She took a short break to write dreadful poetry in
then a longer one while she worked as an attorney, writing legal
briefs and telling stories about her clients. She has returned
to fiction, and now writes children's books and short stories
for all ages. She was a finalist for the Tassy Walden Award: New
Voices in Children's Literature in both 2001 and 2002.
her stories has appeared in Ladybug magazine, and a
middle-grade, magical-realism novel is scheduled for
publication in autumn 2007. Born and raised in Montreal, she spends most of the
year in New England with her family, and much of the summer on a
lake in Quebec.
In the Rabbit Hole
began in December 2005
Breathing water and pine
"It's just a children's
Reconciling to the
A.C.E. Bauer at
acebauer at gmail dot com